NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Six years ago, the Solarize Williamstown initiative helped 79 homeowners add solar photo-voltaic panels to their properties.
Six years later, Solarize Plus looks to replicate and expand on that model thanks to more options, a wider pool of property owners, new technology and a greater need than ever to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
It seems like weekly new evidence is released about the threat of climate change, which the scientific community overwhelmingly agreed is fueled in part by human activity.
Just last week, a study by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development found that in the next 20 years, U.S. coastal communities will need to spend more than $400 billion to defend property from sea-level rise. The price tag for Cape Cod's Barnstable County: $7 billion over 20 years.
Alarming statistics like that prompted the creation of Williamstown's COOL (Carbon Dioxide Lowering) Committee back in 2001.
That committee, in turn, worked with the town to launch the first Solarize project. This time around, organizers thought bigger, engaging the city of North Adams, which joined Williamstown to create Solarize North Berkshire, which launches with a kickoff event on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Norad Mill on Roberts Drive in North Adams.
"Although I have been interested in building energy efficiency since working in LEED modeling 10 years ago, I chose to help with Solarize because I am eager to facilitate broad adoption of these technologies both to lower our region's fossil fuel usage and carbon footprint, but also to lower people's costs and increase energy independence and security," said Susan Abrams, Williamstown's "solar coach."
Abrams and her Steeple City counterpart, Adam Galambos, will be at Tuesday's session to talk about the potential benefits of a residential or commercial solar installation and sign up interested residents of the two communities.
This time, Solarize offers more benefits than ever, according to Abrams and Williamstown's Wendy Penner, one of the earliest members of the COOL Committee and a leader in both Solarize iterations.
"Last time, it was solar electric only, which was open to small businesses and residents, and people could either host on their roof or do ground-mounted [PV arrays]," Penner said. "All of that is true.
"But the first time, it was just solar PV electric. Now it's Solarize Plus, which allows you to apply for additional technology: solar hot water and battery storage."
So even if you participated in the first round of Solarize — a product of the Boston-based Massachusetts Clean Energy Center — you can still find new applications through Solarize North Berkshire. Or, if you found in the past that, for whatever reason, your property is not ideal for solar electric production, you may find something in the new Solarize that works for you.
"On solar hot water, the nice thing about it is the siting requirements are a little less rigid," Penner said. "People who don't qualify for solar PV because they don't get as much sunlight might still be eligible."
Abrams noted that solar hot water systems have been around for decades. Her family tried one when she was a kid, but the technology has improved tremendously.
"A solar hot water system captures heat from sunlight and circulates the thermal energy to a property's water tank," according to Mass CEC. "Solar hot water systems reduce the usage of traditional water heating fuels (such as oil, electricity, or propane) and thereby reduce the amount spent purchasing these fuels. These systems do not fully replace conventional water heaters, but can provide up to 80 percent of a building's total hot water needs. Solar hot water systems may also be installed to supplement a building's heating system."
Solarize North Berkshire is one of the first programs in the commonwealth to add battery storage, the other new application available through Solarize Plus. It can be used in conjunction with solar photo-voltaic arrays … or not.
"From what I've read, there are three ways of incorporating batters," Abrams said. "One is you can install a battery with new PV, which is very efficient. … If you already have PV, you can have a battery retrofitted in.
"The third option is to have a battery without PVs. It becomes almost a backup generator instead of relying on a fossil fuel [gasoline- or diesel-powered] generator."
Abrams said electric utilities are working to develop programs in which they cooperate with private owners of batteries that are charged at homes and businesses during periods of low electric demand. When the utility is expecting high demand — like on a hot day in the summer — it can draw power from the batteries back onto the grid instead of bringing additional coal-fired plants online to meet the demand.
Of course, the more "conventional" rooftop or ground-mounded solar PV electric arrays, which allow homes and businesses to participate in net metering programs with the electric company, are still available.
If you go with a ground-mounted, or pedestal model, you can also take advantage of new technology that enables the PV cells to rotate during the day for optimal angles to the sun for collecting solar rays, Abrams said.
There are a lot of details about the Solarize North Berkshire program that still are being developed. Penner said there is a request for proposals out to find an installer or installers who will be work with participants. Once the installer is on board later this summer, more information will be available about cost, and potential participants will be able to weigh upfront cost against rebates and returns on their investment.
On Tuesday, the organizers will have more general information, take questions from interested home and business owners and collect names and contact information.
Penner is excited about the prospects for the town-city partnership.
"Before Solarize in 2013, we had 20 residential arrays in Williamstown," she said. "Then we had 80 more through the program. We had a tremendous impact last time around."
The Solarize Plus information session is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25 at Norad Mill, 60 Roberts Drive, North Adams.
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